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from issue no. 04 - 2009

Brief biography

A pastor for Paris

by Stefania Falasca

André Vingt-Trois is a genuine parisien de souche, a “kid from the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève”, the hill on the rive gauche where in the ’fifties he attended the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV, where Jacques Maritain and Jean-Paul Sartre had also been pupils. Of the intense years spent in the public high school, the cardinal recalls in the book/interview La liberté dans la foi the many schoolmates who were “non-Christian or without religion: little French people, who made me feel that being Catholic was a peculiarity”. Of his early childhood and adolescence he also recalls “the concrete and regular meeting with male and female Christians: simple people who had no other cultural peculiarity except the daily practice of the faith of the Church”.
In 1962, after a year at the Sorbonne University, the twenty-year-old André entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Issy-les-Moulineaux. He was ordained priest on 28 June 1969, and was immediately sent as parochial vicar to Sainte Jeanne de Chantal, a church in the sixteenth arrondissement, near the Porte de Saint-Cloud. A few weeks later the new parish priest arrived. His name was Jean-Marie Lustiger. The two priests passed the troubled years after 1968 together in the parish. A time of trial which established a relationship destined to last. When in 1981 Pope Wojtyla chose Lustiger as archbishop of Paris, he immediately summoned Vingt-Trois, who in the meantime had become professor and spiritual assistant at his old seminary in Issy-les-Moulineaux. And in 1988 he became auxiliary bishop of Paris.
The two were quite dissimilar. Lustiger, the young Jew become prince of the Church, marked for more than two decades, the French ecclesial scene with his over-the-top personality, in every way an exception. Sophisticated, impatient, usually tense in appearance. Vingt-Trois appears placid, realistic, indolent and contented in appearance, ordinarily easy-going. A person who works hard but knows how to take his time. And every now and then bursts into one of his proverbial roaring laughs.
During the years of Lustiger’s nouvelle vague, Vingt-Trois was the discrete factotum of initiatives that set the tone for the episcopacy of his former parish priest, echoing in a French fashion Pope Wojtyla’s slogan of the New Evangelization: the revival of the École cathédrale for the theological training of the laity; and the launch of Radio Notre-Dame; campaigns like Guerre scolaire of 1984, when Archbishop Lustiger and other French bishops publicly opposed the Savary bill aimed at unifying the whole school system under state control.
In 1999 Vingt-Trois was appointed archbishop of Tours. But everyone knew that Lustiger himself saw him as his successor at the head of one of the most important diocese in the world. On 11 February 2005, as a coda to Wojtyla’s papacy, the appointment of Vingt-Trois as archbishop of Paris was announced. Benedict XVI created him cardinal in November 2007. Earlier that same month, his fellow bishops elected him president of the French Episcopal Conference.
“I am not one who gets easily exalted”, Cardinal Vingt-Trois says of himself. But the crowd that fills Notre Dame on Sunday night, when he usually celebrates Mass, is also a silent response to the gossips who wondered whether “he would be up to” his singular predecessor. Perhaps what has contributed to opening the doors is precisely his ordinary medietas as French priest of the present time. His honesty in saying what he thinks, frankly and without malice. And the impression that his cordial calm has to do with the novelty he chose as episcopal motto: “Dieu a tant aimé le monde”.

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